Capitol Alert

California isn’t doing enough to verify citizenship while registering voters, lawsuit says

A Republican attorney filed a lawsuit on Tuesday demanding that two California agencies develop a better system to verify the citizenship of people who register to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Harmeet Dhillon alleges Secretary of State Alex Padilla is violating federal law by not verifying citizenship information from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

She wants the DMV to send Padilla more records related to citizenship to demonstrate that only eligible people are able to register.

“We want the secretary of state to do his job, which is to ensure that only eligible voters are placed on the voter rolls,” she said.

The lawsuit challenges a new program meant to boost voter participation. Motor Voter, which launched in April 2018, automatically registers eligible voters when they visit the DMV. It proved to benefit Democrats during last year’s midterm election, although a high number of applicants are registering with no party preference.

The program had a botched implementation despite warnings about potential technology failures. Six ineligible people voted in the June 2018 primary. Two of the six also voted in the general election in November. The DMV reported making 105,000 registration errors in the months following the launch.

In a statement, Padilla called Dhillon’s lawsuit “a fundamental misrepresentation” of the federal law that guides voter registration programs.

“The plaintiffs claim they are protecting voters, but this is nothing more than an underhanded attempt to bring their voter suppression playbook to California,” Padilla wrote. “As we have seen in other states — most recently in Kansas and Texas — these efforts only serve to disenfranchise thousands of eligible citizens. California remains committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections, empowering citizens to participate in democracy, and defending the right to vote.”

Padilla worries the complaint could lead to residents being wrongfully purged from the state’s voter rolls.

Dhillon, who filed the lawsuit against him and the DMV on behalf of three Republican voters, said the complaint is simply about ensuring accurate information about citizenship is being transmitted between the DMV and the Secretary of State’s Office. She called Padilla’s claims of voter suppression “ludicrous and dishonest,” adding that she wouldn’t want wrong people voting in conservative states either.

“It’s Padilla’s duty to cross-check databases he has access to,” Dhillion said.

The voter registration database, though, does not include official citizenship documents, according to Padilla’s office.

Instead, it indicates whether applicants affirmed their eligibility status because they had to “declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California” they are a U.S. citizen and resident of California and at least 16 years old, not currently in a state or federal prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony and not currently found mentally incompetent to vote by a court.

The applicant must also verify he or she understands it’s is a crime to intentionally provide incorrect information and that the information on the registration form is true and correct.

The DMV then submits the data through an application programming interface, which Padilla’s office sends through a centralized database called VoteCal to county elections officials for the final round of processing.

The lawsuit makes a broader point about citizenship, arguing Padilla has “established a pattern and practice of doing nothing to verify that a potential voter is a United States citizen, thus causing non-citizens to be placed on the voter rolls.”

A common complaint about the voter registration form is over its failure to single out citizenship as a standalone question. At an October 2018 news conference, Padilla blasted the DMV following news that 1,500 DMV customers may have been improperly registered to vote, including some non-citizens.

Padilla called the mistakes “absolutely unacceptable” and later launched an internal investigation to determine how many of them voted.

Because a confusing government questionnaire about eligibility was created in a way that prevents a direct answer on citizenship, Padilla couldn’t determine the specific reason the people were ineligible. It took his office 10 months to confirm six individuals who shouldn’t have voted in 2018 did so. His office announced in August that it could not determine whether the six people met registration eligibility requirements, though it noted that none of the people were undocumented immigrants.

The DMV declined to comment on the issue because the lawsuit is ongoing.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.
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